Grind Now, Shine Later: The JayQuan McCloud Story

By: Derek Spallone

JayQuan & his son Jay’Ceon.

JayQuan & his son Jay’Ceon.

In 2014, the state of Illinois produced thirteen high-major Division I basketball players, three McDonald’s All-Americans, and a handful of prospects who would later go on to take their talents to the professional level. When discussing that loaded 2014 class, one player was often overlooked despite his silky-smooth playing style. That player is North Chicago’s very own JayQuan McCloud.

McCloud could do just about everything on the court (and still can). He has a natural feel for the game, he is lightning quick, and if you need a bucket, #11 is your guy. His work ethic and tenacity eventually led the 6’2 guard to become one of the top fifteen players in the state of Illinois. He took his talents to Murray State, then to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a pit-stop at Highland Community College, and now has landed at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

However, McCloud’s journey hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows; adversity and heartache forced him to step away from the game during a critical phase when his peers were at the peak of their collegiate careers.

According to McCloud, that 1 1/2-year hiatus from basketball only made him stronger. Now, as he prepares to suit up for his fourth collegiate team in five years, McCloud is ready to show you it’s not how you start, but how you finish.

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JayQuan McCloud grew up in a three-bedroom home inside the Marion Jones projects, a housing complex located in North Chicago, also referred to as the “bricks.”

JayQuan is pictured in the center (third person going left to right) wearing a jacket and rocking braids.

JayQuan is pictured in the center (third person going left to right) wearing a jacket and rocking braids.

“All of the apartment buildings were made out of bricks,” says McCloud. “So that was the nickname we gave them.”

McCloud lived with his aunt Demetrius Bauer and his three cousins: Tricey, Marquel, and Phillip. McCloud was the youngest of the bunch. Growing up, McCloud was exposed to danger at an early age since the Marion Jones area was riddled with drugs and gun violence. “I remember coming from the corner candy store with my friend Deandre,” McCloud reflects. “We got our candy and stopped to talk to Dominique, one of our other homies who was sitting on a curb. Then, a car pulled up on the side of another car like an arm reach away and opened fire right in front of us. That day really opened my eyes to gun violence. I was only 13 years old.”

McCloud was looking for an escape, a way out, and basketball provided that.

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The first time JayQuan McCloud picked up a basketball at age three, it was love at first sight. “I wasn’t that good growing up,” McCloud says with a smile. That all changed when he began playing organized basketball in third grade. “I fell in love with the game. I started working on (it) and getting better and better.”

JayQuan age 3.

JayQuan age 3.

By the time McCloud entered high school at North Chicago High, McCloud, his family, and his coaches knew he had what it took to play at the next level. Illinois High School Basketball coaching legend Gerald Coleman coached McCloud all four years. Coleman, the current head coach at North Chicago says, “I recognized that JayQuan was a special player when he completely dominated the freshman level, scoring an average of about 25 points a game. Honestly, I thought he was overconfident. So in an effort to humble him, without notice, I moved him up to Varsity and played him 2.5 quarters. He scored 24 points. My plan backfired. After that, I knew for sure he was definitely something special.”

Unfortunately, McCloud’s opportunity to blossom would have to wait; only six games into his sophomore season, the rising star suffered the first setback of his basketball career. He was diagnosed with a torn patella tendon in his knee that he sustained during a matchup at cross-town rival Waukegan high school. But with the help of Chicago Bears equipment manager Tony Medlin, McCloud wound up training with a man known as “Superman”, who nursed him back to full strength. “My trainer pushed me & pushed me,” McCloud says. “Then, when I was fully healed, I got in contact with Coach Mullins of the Illinois Wolves (on the AAU circuit) and he helped take my game to another level.”

McCloud’s coaches weren’t the only ones who helped McCloud elevate his game; a fellow North Chicagoan contributed to his development as well. That man was none other than Aaron Simpson; North Chicago’s all-time leading scorer and the young athlete’s close friend.

Aaron Simpson & JayQuan.

Aaron Simpson & JayQuan.

“Aaron and I go way back,” McCloud said. JayQuan would always run into Aaron outside at the neighborhood’s basketball court, since Aaron lived in the Marion Jones projects too. “I would wake up at like 9 in the morning and I would see him (Aaron) walking there (the basketball court), so I would come out of my Auntie’s house and go up there with him,” says McCloud. “He taught me how to shoot. He is like a big brother to me.”

During McCloud’s sophomore season, Simpson led North Chicago to the 3A Championship game and finished his decorated high school basketball career scoring over 2,000 career points. Ultimately, Simpson became North Chicago’s all-time leading scorer, before heading off to Lincoln College and then to DePaul respectively.

After Simpson’s departure, the torch passed to McCloud. Fully healed and entering his junior season, all eyes were on him to lead the Warhawks. The up-and-coming star did however have the help of two other prominent Illinois High School basketball players: JaVairius Amos-Mays and Kurt Hall. Together, they formed a “Big Three” and guided North Chicago to back-to-back supersectional appearances.

During McCloud’s senior season, he poured in 18 points and dished out 5 assists per game. His play also succeeded in garnering the attention and respect of those in the basketball world. For instance, even with the 2014 class being one of the most star-studded classes in Illinois basketball history, McCloud was considered a top fifteen prospect in the state. He was also a McDonald’s All-American nominee.

“I never paid attention to rankings in my life,” says McCloud. “Once you see that top guy, you gotta beat that top guy, I just kept that mindset and stayed humble.”

When his high school career was all said and done, McCloud racked up a total of 95 wins. Now, it was time for McCloud to take the next step in his career.

JayQuan during his high school days at North Chicago.

JayQuan during his high school days at North Chicago.

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November 20th, 2013, McCloud officially signed his letter of intent to play for Coach Prohm at Murray State. “On the visit (to Murray State),” says McCloud. “Coach Prohm brought my family in. We sat down and talked. He said ‘we want you here.’ ”

That all but sealed the deal for McCloud.

The other key attraction was the fact that Murray State liked to play fast and get up and down the floor; almost identical to North Chicago’s style of play. Plus, not only were they a top mid-major program, but they also produced some top-notch NBA caliber guards including: Isaiah Canaan (Phoenix Suns) and Cameron Payne (Chicago Bulls).

In fact, Payne was a sophomore when McCloud arrived on campus that summer, and McCloud immediately took notice of Payne’s work ethic. “He was in the gym early way before everybody else, just getting up shots,” says McCloud. “His drive was just way different.” In a short time, Payne and McCloud developed a strong bond. McCloud remembers always joking and laughing with Cam. “I always told him he looked like a little rat.”

McCloud still stays in contact with Payne to this day. When I asked JayQuan about the most memorable piece of advice Payne offered him he said, “Trust the process and stay the course. Not to get down on myself and to just keep on working.”

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JayQuan remembers the moment vividly -- the moment he knew he needed to return home. “It was the end of the summer,” McCloud recalls. “I stood the course through the summer workouts, got through it and everything. Then I was like ‘man, I’m 18, I’ve never been away from home, my mother (Shangrecka Webb) was just diagnosed with diabetes, and my grandmother (Nancy McCloud) just passed away from a heart attack.’ It got really tough for the family back at home and they needed me.”

McCloud’s family had originally planned to move down to Kentucky to be closer to him, but once his mother was hospitalized and his grandmother passed away, that plan was immediately off the table. “After practices I just wasn’t feeling myself and that’s when I knew I had to have that sit-down with coach,” says McCloud. “Coach McMahon & Coach Prohm were definitely understanding.”

In December 2014, McCloud left Murray State at the end of the fall semester without having suited up for the Racers.

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Upon receiving his release from Murray State, McCloud was now free to speak with other universities closer to home, including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After talking to then Panthers head coach Rob Jeter, it hit him that this was the perfect opportunity at this stage in his life because UWM was less than an hour away from McCloud’s hometown of North Chicago.

“I’m thinking in my head like ‘Yeah (this is it). I can be closer to the fam now.’ It’s closer (to home), I can play there, enjoy playing (the game), and be locked in. Do what I love to do.”

McCloud officially announced his intention to join the Panthers’ basketball program in late December 2015. He enrolled in UWM that February and was immediately eligible to participate in all basketball related activities. However there was one minor issue; despite not having suited up for the Racers, McCloud had to file an appeal with the NCAA in order to play. “Pretty much the way the appeal process works is, you write a letter to the NCAA and explain why you left your previous school, and explain why you should be eligible right away to play.”

It took a few months, but McCloud eventually won his appeal. However, according to NCAA transfer rules, he still had to sit out the fall semester, which meant he missed a few games at the beginning of the 2015 season. JayQuan didn’t mind. He was just glad to be close to home and back doing what he loved.

Worth noting at the time, UWM had not only one, but two Lake County natives on their roster! Akeem Springs and Jordan Johnson. Both Springs and Johnson competed for Waukegan High School, both of them were like brothers to McCloud when he was growing up.

“Akeem was (already) there. He used to tell me, ‘come here, come to UWM.’ ”

When Jordan Johnson announced he was leaving John Wood Community College and joining the program too, that all but put the cherry on top for McCloud. “We all three talked and we were like ‘This is going to be great, let’s do this together.’ ”

Playing alongside these guys made it feel like home for McCloud.

“These are my brothers.”

JayQuan during a road game for the Panthers.

JayQuan during a road game for the Panthers.

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Eighteen games into his career as a Panther, McCloud suddenly left the program. Tragedy had struck his family once again. This time, it was McCloud’s sister, Ashley Patton. Ashley had passed away after being involved in a four-wheeler accident while JayQuan was away at school. This time he needed to step away from the game for the foreseeable future.

“It ate me up inside, honestly. It was just tough being at home (again) and not being around the game,” McCloud said. “I’d watch a game on TV and get frustrated. I’d think to myself like, ‘why, why did you leave’? But I had to go home and revaluate everything.”

Upon returning home, McCloud knew he had to take care of his responsibilities and help provide for his family during this devastating time, which meant getting a job. He took a position with Bright Star, a cellular device protection company. “Pretty much I’d evaluate phones, restore them, and check the gigabytes and sim cards. Then our company would resell the phones.”

McCloud wasn’t thrilled about his new job because he knew he could take the game of basketball and turn it into a successful career. He’d go to the gym daily and shoot like crazy, which helped him relieve stress.

There was however something else that helped McCloud during this tough time: Poetry.

“I was a big poem writer in high school, I liked to write a lot of poems,” says McCloud. “It was an outlet (for me). I was able to express my feelings.”

Music was also very therapeutic for McCloud throughout his life, but it played an even bigger role now. It helped him clear his mind, he would even write rhymes in his spare time and still does to this day.

Music and poetry ultimately helped McCloud cope with all the pain and sorrow he felt, but deep down he knew that in order for him to achieve his dreams he needed to take his hand off the pause button and press play.

“Seeing many family members and people around me pass away put life into perspective,” says McCloud. “It woke me up, life is short. You have to make something happen. You can’t just wait or let life pass you up because time don’t wait on nobody.”

Now the moment had finally come.

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Coach Chad Boudreau was an assistant coach on Rob Jeter’s staff at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee while McCloud was a Panther. In May of 2017, Coach Boudreau accepted the head coaching position at Highland Community College, and wanted the 6’2 “Silky-Smooth” guard to come with him.

“Coach Boudreau is a life-saver man,” says McCloud. Coach Boudreau called Jay up and told him about his new position and said: “Quan get up here. You don’t want to work these jobs, you are too talented to let your game go to waste.”

After a year-in-a-half removed from competitive basketball, McCloud knew this was his second chance. “You don’t get too many chances, so you have to make the most of them.”

McCloud’s family also played a significant role in helping him get back out on the court and take advantage of this opportunity. “Coming from where I come from, you don’t have too many two-parent households,” says McCloud. “So that was big for me, that my Mom & my Dad were there pushing me and telling me: ‘You have to get back, you have to do this, we gonna be ok.’ ”

McCloud also received wonderful news which made his decision even easier. He and his girlfriend Brittany Jones were expecting their first child together — a baby boy. “When I found out (the news), I knew I had to snap back in and go hard. I told myself, ‘You gotta provide, you gotta show him the way.’ ”

McCloud told Coach Boudreau he had a kid on the way. “He (Coach Boudreau) is always an energetic guy, he was excited (about the news), then he told me ‘Come on Quan, we gonna go get this.’ ”

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“I never even heard of Freeport, Illinois until I got to Highland. I didn’t even know it existed.”

That was McCloud’s initial reaction to his new home, but it was a mandatory next step for him to get back on track towards his dreams. Fortunately for McCloud, his mother and father had just moved to the Rockford area, which was only forty-five minutes away. Brittany moved down to Rockford as well, which made him even feel more at home.

Stepping back out onto the floor, there were definitely a few adjustments McCloud needed to make. The first thing he noticed was the decreased speed of the game on the JUCO level; he was used to the up-tempo style of play on the DI level. “The game slowed down a lot. I’m like ‘this is not the speed of the game,’ ” McCloud said with a laugh.

But this style of play worked in McCloud’s favor. He was simply out of shape after sitting out for over a year. “I was kinda fat man,” McCloud jokes. “We would get a weekly Wal-Mart card to make sure we got our food. We had a meal plan too, but I didn’t need a meal plan. I was just tryna get the weight down by eating salads and drinking a lot of water.”

In case you were wondering, McCloud’s “go-to meal” was chicken tenders with BBQ sauce.

McCloud also had another challenge presented to him by Coach Boudreau: “You need to step up, you need to lead these young guys, they look up to you, since you’ve been at that level that they want to be at.”

McCloud knew he had to be what Cameron Payne was to him; a mentor. So the then 21-year old took it upon himself to create team-bonding moments off the court in order to enhance the team’s chemistry on the court.

“There was nothing to do in Freeport, it was pretty boring,” McCloud recalls with a few chuckles. “So we had a little bracket board on the wall, then we would just come together and play 2K, have 2K tournaments.”

McCloud embraced his new leadership role at Highland and flourished. He averaged 15.4 PPG and guided the team to an impressive 26-8 record. He was also the 20th player in program history to be named an NJCAA Division I All-American, but there was one game in particular that displayed McCloud’s skillset and discipline the most.

In order for the Highland Cougars to clinch a trip to nationals, they needed to win the district title. They were trailing by nine at the half against Missouri St. – West Plains in the district title game, when McCloud recalls this moment. “I had probably 4 points at the half, and I got into the locker room and I already knew he (Coach Boudreau) was gonna come in and go in on me, so I’m preparing myself. He gets in the locker room, and right away says ‘Quan you need to get your ass going’ starts cussing. He just sparked me after that, then I locked in.”

In fact, McCloud had 6 first-half points that game and poured in 22 second-half points, finishing with a game high 28 points and leading the Cougars to a 77-75 comeback victory and most importantly, a district championship. Unfortunately, just days later, Highland would go on to lose to South Plains College, the eventual national champions with the score of 91-71 in the first round. McCloud finished the game with 16 points and 4 assists.

It was now time for Jay, once again, to take that next step in his basketball career. Luckily, his experience at Highland prepared him for what was next to come. “I never felt like I was too good for JUCO,” says McCloud. “But it was motivating to me like I went down a level, now it’s time to get back up to where you’re supposed to be and keep on moving.”

JayQuan holding the district title championship trophy during his time at Highland Community College.

JayQuan holding the district title championship trophy during his time at Highland Community College.

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McCloud’s last Division I basketball game was February 15, 2016. Why is this tidbit of information significant? Coincidentally, that game was against Green Bay at the Resch Center, the home of the Phoenix; JayQuan’s new team. While at the time McCloud may have thought his Division I playing days were done, they were really just beginning.

“Green Bay was at the Jamboree, my first game at highland, first game stepping back with officials, they were the only DI School in attendance,” recalls McCloud. “Watching me being fat and out of shape while running up and down the court. That pushed me and let me know that they were interested. Them being there meant a lot to me.”

All McCloud had to do was keep on working and the scholarship offer would come. Then, it finally came.

“I came to the game against IUPUI in December, Coach Darner brought me in the locker room, it was after a loss, so he was kinda pissed,” McCloud recollects. “But he brought me in the locker room, and was pretty straight forward and said ‘I want to offer you.’ ”

McCloud immediately called Coach Boudreau and told him the news. Then Boudreau told McCloud, “Go there, that is your type of game.” McCloud didn’t need to wait on any other schools, the decision was easy. “I’m supposed to be here (At Green Bay), I left the Horizon League unannounced, so I’d rather be back in the HL.” That day, he verbally agreed to join the Phoenix.

It wasn’t the quickest transition for McCloud though. He still needed to finish his summer classes at Highland before coming to Green Bay. It was around that same time that his son Jay’Ceon was born.

“It got real serious, because it’s not just about you no more and your selfish ways,” says McCloud. “You can’t be selfish having no kid, it’s time to put everything aside and strictly focus on your kid.”

After completing his summer courses at Highland, McCloud was able to make the move. Getting acclimated to the area so quickly was tough on him and Brittany at first. They needed to find an apartment, daycare, etc., but fortunately, Coach Darner and the rest of the UWGB staff were very understanding.

And then it was time for McCloud to finally get to work. Upon his arrival, he immediately started his workouts. He recalls Coach Ryan Immel, UWGB’s head strength and conditioning coach telling him “let’s work” and they got right down to it.

JayQuan arrived at UWGB weighing nearly two hundred and thirty-five pounds, but in order to get back in sync with the up-tempo style of play, the coaches and McCloud knew he would have to lose weight.

While his teammates were getting ready to head back home for a little break during the summer, McCloud, who had arrived on campus late, stayed behind. He was on the court running and shooting daily. It was nice though, because all four coaches were working one-on-one with him. Whether it was helping him get more lift on his shot, or just working on overall endurance. McCloud was also in the weight room every day. Sometimes it would be a lifting session where the focus was less weight, more reps, or visa-versa, with more weight and less reps.

“It was tough, it was rough, especially those first three weeks,” McCloud reflects. “They were rough for me, but I just had to keep on working.”

The hard-work paid off. With a steady diet and a new training regime, McCloud cut nearly forty pounds. It was the most fit he had ever been in his life and his new coach was very optimistic about what McCloud could bring to the table in the upcoming season.

“JayQuan is a guy that can score in a bunch of different ways,” says UWGB Head Coach Linc Darner. “He gives us a threat on the perimeter and we look forward to having his experience and skill set this season.”

Now with the regular season underway, McCloud is ready and looking forward to competing with this group. “We are really athletic, loaded with a lot of talent,” McCloud says. “Every game will come down to getting stops. We know we have the ability to score the basketball and get everybody involved.”

JayQuan signing autographs following Green Bay’s open-scrimmage.

JayQuan signing autographs following Green Bay’s open-scrimmage.

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Finding the balance between fatherhood and basketball has really put life into perspective for McCloud, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I look at my son every day and it’s like I’m looking at myself.”

Brittany, JayQuan, and six-month old Jay’Ceon, have officially settled into their new place here in Green Bay. “My girl goes to work, he’s at daycare, and when I get out of practice I go get him and get to be with him,” McCloud says. “It’s so great, (he laughs), it’s a great experience being a father.”

His advice for anybody going through a tough patch?

“Stay the course, man. Stay humble through it all and keep working. Don’t ever stop and never get down on yourself. Just keep moving, life’s going to throw punches at you, take them and keep moving, keep running & keep grinding.”

If there’s one thing we know for certain after hearing McCloud’s story, it’s not about how you start, but rather, it’s how you finish.